THE winter days may be shorter but it’s always surprising how many contrasting moods can be packed into one mountain outing at this time of year.
Even the drive across country is a feast of ever-changing vistas. One minute you are in brilliant sunshine, the next you are enveloped in a blanket of freezing fog where shapes and shadows shift and change imperceptibly on either side of the road.
I had set off west with the intention of stopping at the first sign of snow-covered mountains with accompanying blue skies. Between Perth and Comrie however, the hills were lacking the white stuff and by Lochearnhead that mist had swallowed up the surrounding countryside.
I pressed on towards Crianlarich, pushing up out of the grey and back into sunshine and full visibility. The land ahead was painted brilliant white, the giant twins, Ben More and Stob Binnein, thrusting up into the unblemished sky, their lower neighbours making a great fist of trying to keep up.
Beyond lay the Tyndrum mountains and further on the Black Mount and Glen Coe, a sea of white rolling on, it seemed, forever. But there was no need to go further - I had found what I was looking for.
It did mean another dip into the freezing mist though. The layby was filled with cars but lacking people and noise. It was if I had stepped momentarily into a Stephen King-style cataclysmic event, the cars abandoned, their occupants vanished, whereabouts unknown.
It was also very cold. Somewhere ahead on currently hidden slopes lay brighter skies, a restoration of colour and the sounds of life again.
The walk through the small rail tunnel and then the track up the glen needed some care, sheet ice in parts, heavy rime with no give in the ground in others. A lone excavator loomed out of the grey, a metal dinosaur sitting silent with work on the now obligatory glens hydro scheme stopped for the holiday period.
But minutes later, after crossing the patchwork bridge and rising on a blend of ice and grass, I left the mist behind. Now the big mountains were icebergs sticking up from a sea of grey cotton and the route ahead was clear to the skyline.
I took a long slanting line to reach the ridge where the snowline started and then followed the pathfinding work of earlier walkers through the deepening snow and over Meall Dhamh. From there Cruach Ardrain comes fully into view. Sitting at the head of two big ridges it fully justifies its name, the stack of the high part.
So far the crampons had stayed in my bag but as I neared the top they came out, easing progress over the more solid underfoot conditions. Now all the other temporary inhabitants of the layby had appeared as well. Two were high on the ridge, another had materialised behind and one was on his way down.
Three others were sitting in the dip on the summit ridge between the two tops having lunch Alpine-style, their view out to Beinn Tulaichean uninterrupted.
When I hit the cairn on Cruach Ardrain, the jury was still out on whether I was going to bother taking in the second Munro but the stroll out there takes only 40 minutes and the climb is reasonably gentle. It seemed silly to turn my back on it.
The sunshine and clear skies camouflage the cold brilliantly. Five minutes on this summit and I was feeling the nip in my hands and toes. On the way back the wind chill was like a file being scraped across my face.
You do have to reclimb a bit on the way back but there is a cairn to mark a bypass path across the side of Cruach Ardrain. Judging by the depth of windswept snow and lack of footprints however, it seemed most people had avoided this route out.
The day was changing again, the freezing mist confidently pushing up, squeezing all the remaining colour from the day, wiping out visibility and overseeing a big plunge in temperature.
By the time I was back on Meall Dhamh the landscape had changed completely. Cruach Ardrain had gone, swallowed by shifty shades of grey. The auburn grasses had lost their lustre and little pools of water were hidden by dulled down frost-coated covers.
The final walk out was the same as the initial walk in - dark, grey and intimidating. The layby was quiet again but this time all the cars were gone. Even the darkness was now invisible.